Review: Zoom H4 Handy Recorder
Despite the howls of protest, this little recorder turned out to be quite handy indeed.
Review: Christopher Holder
The first time I used the Zoom H4 recorder was at a protest rally. I grabbed it as I rushed out the door – late as I was for the event – only to discover on approach that the unit didn’t come supplied with AA batteries! ‘No big deal’, I figured as I sped through Woolworths like a man possessed trying to find the batteries aisle… ‘I should have known.’
With the batteries purchased, I rushed up the road to the municipal hall where a large crowd had gathered to hear several people speak, and camera crews from various nightly news teams and boom mic operators jockeyed for position in the overcrowded space. At this point I hadn’t the faintest notion how to use the Zoom H4. I knew the unit probably only came with a small SD card (120MB as it turned out – far too small for general news gathering applications, in my opinion, especially at higher sampling rates) so I put it into 16-bit/44.1k recording mode via one of the easily-selectable backlit recording format buttons on the front panel, hit record – which dropped it into pause/record mode – checked the level (which seemed okay),
hit record a second time and off it went. I nonchalantly wandered to the front of the stage and placed it discreetly on the podium right under the speaker and left it there for the duration of the rally.
The Zoom H4 is a stereo recorder and (as I much later discovered) a four-track recorder all in one. The four-track recorder, in fact, allows for overdubbing, panning, mixing and bouncing the results to a stereo file, and even includes a chromatic tuner (that can only be accessed via the Combi-connector line inputs), a metronome and various guitar and multi-effects – not something I was expecting from the unit at all, but highlights the predisposition of Zoom towards guitars and amps. The H4 even has mic modelling options if you’re recording via the built-in stereo mic (otherwise known as glorified preset tone controls). If I’d known, I would have recorded the protest rally via the ‘Neumann U87’ preset! The only restriction of ‘four-track’ mode is the 16-bit/44.1k sampling rate. But wait, that’snot all, every unit also comes with a copy of Cubase LE software, which allows the H4 to act as a stereo audio interface to boot.
The Zoom H4 is a hand-held SD recorder with two fixedposition condenser mics arranged in an X/Y configuration at the top of the unit, and protected by a reasonably sturdy ‘roll cage’, much like the Sony PCM-D1 we reviewed last issue. The H4’s super-lightweight plastic construction makes it a breeze to carry around, to the extent that at one point in my first H4 outing, I frantically searched all my coat pockets as I was convinced that I’d dropped it! It’s not small, but at 190g, it’s almost lighter than my new mobile phone.
BIRD IN THE CAN…
Sonically the unit performs beautifully. At 24-bit/96k, in particular, the in-built mic configuration provides a smooth stereo image and a balanced and delicate tone. I used the unit to record lots of different outdoor location sounds at this digital resolution, from early morning bird-calls – which sounded breathtaking on the recording – to ocean surf and driving rain. Higher sampling rates like 24-bit/96k are far more capable of capturing and reproducing the delicacies of natural ambiences and other high-end sounds than 16-bit/44.1k, especially where ‘pink’ and ‘white’ noise-type sounds like a raging ocean, wind and rain are concerned. It’s also good for brushed snare work. The Zoom H4 was more than capable of separating out the nuances of these broadband sounds at its highest sample rate in a natural-sounding way, without the digital recording medium crunching it up into a harsh, grinding overtone. I’ve had experiences in the past where a digital location recorder reduced the subtle mayhem of the ocean into something more akin to the sound of a cement mixer – thankfully the Zoom H4 didn’t hear it this way. The only drawback was that, at this elevated sampling rate, the miniscule 120MB SD card supplied with the unit could only record in stereo for a tick over three and a half minutes! Ridiculous! (Thanfully the H4 now comes supplied with a 512MB card, which is better, but still only a ‘starter-card’ at best.)
Physically, the unit feels instinctively a little fragile, and the last thing I was ever going to attempt was a ‘drop’ test. It’s not what I’d call robustly built: the battery compartment door feels quite delicate and the buttons and switches all feel a little fiddly and hard on the fingers, apart from the central menu key which feels loose and ambiguous – the ‘nipple-joystick’ makes the unit feel more like a personal hand-held Nintendo than an audio recorder. Just to dwell on this particular control for a moment, I’d much rather have seen a dedicated ‘stop’ button on the H4 than the one incorporated into this centrally located multi-control button. Once armed, there seems no obvious way to drop the unit back out of record-ready, since there’s no control anywhere on the unit labelled ‘stop’. The first time I tried to abort a recording I had to turn the unit off! The side-positioned on/off and stepped input gain switches are all small and stiff, with black-on-black labelling, making it difficult to read in all but the brightest light, at which point the backlit sample rate and record buttons aren’t easily viewed either. Having said all that, this unit is built to a price point (a little over one-fifth the price of the Sony PCM-D1), so it would be unfair to expect it to have the same ergonomic maturity or build quality of something vastly more expensive. And besides, all these little shortcomings are easy to get used to if you’re primarily interested in the unit’s recording potential – just don’t expect to be able to get very far without a much larger SD card than the one supplied with the machine. As it turned out, I only managed to capture the first seven minutes of the protest rally speeches that night… not much more than the first waffling introduction!
The H4 ‘Handy Recorder’ has a menu-based phantom power option to drive two external condenser mics, which connect via the aforementioned Combi connectors. So if you have a favourite stereo pair (or a single stereo mic) or perhaps you simply want the mics at a distance from the recorder, you can connect them up and use the individual low/medium/high input gain switches on the side of the unit to set up your left/right recording levels. Finessing the gain can then be addressed via the backlit LCD screen under the ‘level’ menu option.
There are also compressor and limiter functions, which allow you to control peaks and help prevent clipping on your recordings, but you have to choose one or the other from the same sub-menu; you can’t run both. The limiter is great at controlling radically different audio signals without introducing any noticeable distortion, unlike the compressor, which tends to ‘pump’ and release awkwardly, creating fairly jerky and clumsy compression artefacts. My suggestion would be to leave these features off if you’re trying to capture quality location sounds, but if you’re source is going to be unpredictable, the limiter will be your best bet by a long shot, and serve you much more transparently than the compressor. Set your levels relatively conservatively and worry about compression later when you’re in a better position to finesse the controls.
Handling noise of the H4, as you might expect, is pretty dominant over a recording if you’re not careful, so the unit is best left to its own devices when capturing audio. To that end the unit also comes supplied with a handy little harness device, which cradles the unit and allows it to be screwed onto a mic stand or tripod. There’s also a foam pop-filter, which is reasonably good for speech control, but not much chop once the wind gets up over about 10 knots [knots? You’ll be quoting in the Beaufort Scale next – CH]. If you don’t want your location sounds to be subject to the dreaded ‘buffeting’ effects of wind in the capsules, I’d advise you to get a windshield for the unit, or take it out of said wind!
FRUIT OF THE ZOOM
The Zoom H4 is a handy recorder, as its name suggests. It’s been great for recording all kinds of outdoor sounds, interviews and even drums on a session where I put it up on a rafter in the studio and let it record for an hour with the compression preset activated. The resultant digital file was then simply exported from the unit via its supplied USB cable, fed into my recording session and cut up to fit the track. Simple. It sounded great, involved no leads or preamps and captured a wildly bombastic stereo recording of the room in a way that I would never have managed with conventional mics and stands. That was the coolest result I achieved with the H4 – very handy indeed, I thought. It may not be the most robust or ergonomic portable recording device ever made, but it’s cheap and above all else, it sounds great.